It is impossible to win a war that you cannot define. That seems to be the main lesson to be drawn from Afghanistan, where a so-called victory seems ever more unreachable. It is also the conclusion of several experts on the region, who fear U.S. forces would be mired forever in that unjustly punished country. .
Sometimes, people not geared for war can offer insights into a war situation that professional warriors cannot do. In 2001, U.S. writer Philip Caputo offered a unique insight into the Afghan psychology. He had spent a month in Afghanistan with the mujahedeen as a reporter, during the Afghans' decade-long war with the Soviets.
At some point in the 1980s, he was accompanying a platoon of mujahedeen who were escorting 1,000 refugees into Pakistan. They had to cross a mountain torrent on a very primitive bridge, consisting essentially of two logs laid side by side. In front of him was a 10-year-old boy, separated from his family, his feet swollen from several days of barefoot marching.
When Caputo realized that the boy was terrified thinking that he could fall into the rapids below, he carried him to the other side. With the help of his interpreter he found the father and handed the boy to him. The father, rather than thanking him slapped the boy in the face and poked Caputo in the chest, shouting angrily at him. Caputo was obviously shocked.
He asked his interpreter about the boy father's reaction and the interpreter explained to him, "He is angry at the boy for not crossing on his own, and angry with you for helping him. Now, he says, his son will expect somebody to help him whenever he runs into difficulties."
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Caputo concludes, "Well, that little boy probably learned. I don't know what became of him, but in my imagination, I see our troops encountering him: now 31, inured to hardship and accustomed to combat, unafraid of death, with an army of men like him at his side."
In a few words, Caputo magisterially captured the strength of the Afghan soldier, able to fight with the most primitive weapons against the greatest empires on earth. When these soldiers feel their land usurped by foreign forces, their strength is multiplied. And this is just one of the obstacles confronting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
There are increasing doubts that a plain increase in the number of soldiers fighting in Afghanistan can lead to a victory progressively more difficult to define. Matthew Hoh, a former Foreign Service officer and former Marine Corps captain who became the first U.S. official to resign in protest over the Afghan war, declared to the Washington Post, "Upon arriving in Afghanistan and serving in both the East and South (and particularly speaking with local Afghans) I found that the majority of those who were fighting us and the Afghan central government were fighting us because they felt occupied."
Can an increase in the number of foreign forces subdue a naturally proud and nationalistic people? In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, U.S. National Security adviser Mr. James Jones offered a sobering view. When asked whether he agreed with General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, that a troop increase was needed he responded, "Generals always ask for more troops....You can keep on putting troops in, and you could have 200,000 troops there and Afghanistan will swallow them up as it has done in the past."
Afghanistan has been called the graveyard of empires. It should more properly be called the graveyard of illusions.